THE HORROR... THE HORROR...
Apocalypse Now is, and probably always will be, one of the most notorious, infamous and legendary films of all time. Originally intended as a faux documentary to be filmed during the Vietnam War under the direction of George Lucas, it was constantly pushed back and rewritten and revisualised until it became a surreal and engulfing story directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The production was a nightmare, with the cast being changed or struck with illness; the sets being destroyed by storms; the budget more than doubling; and the intended four-month shoot extending to almost a year and a half. Coppola became almost maniacal in his push to complete the film, which took a further two years to edit, getting its release in 1979, three years after it had begun filming. In 2001, Coppola went back to the film and released a new edit of the film, reinstating scenes dropped from the original cut, adding a further 49 minutes to the already huge 153-minute running time. This was released as Apocalypse Now Redux.
Vietnam, 1969. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), an experienced Special Forces officer, is sent back into the jungle on a top-secret mission to find and kill renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has set up his own army within the jungle. As Willard forges ahead into the jungle, he slowly descends into a state of border-line insanity brought on by his mission and the jungle itself, becoming more like the man he was sent to kill.
At the time of writing, it was perhaps only a couple of months ago that I had the good fortune to be able to see an all-new digital re-release of the original cut of Apocalypse Now on a big cinema screen. It had been years since I had seen it, and I would have kicked myself if I had missed it, particularly with the legendary sound design being played through big theatre sound. Some things genuinely do just need to be seen at least once on the big screen. The showing I went to was an early-afternoon Wednesday screening, the last in its run. When I came to two-and-a-half hours later, I was rather spaced out, walking through the streets back to my car in a mild daze, reeling from the spectacle I had just seen. I genuinely didn’t speak to anyone for around an hour and a half after the film finished. I can’t think of many ways to better describe it than that, other than perhaps this: as I sat in the theatre, which was only moderately busy, there were people around who, for one reason or another, couldn’t sit through the full running time like myself and some others could. Someone had to leave to go to the toilet, someone went to get another drink, the reasons varied. As I sat there, transfixed by the film onscreen, I did, on occasion, have my concentration broken now and then by one of those people moving from their seat. As they moved, I would glance at them, not contemptuously so, but simply because there was movement where there had been none before. My glance away from the film was momentary, less than a second, and I missed no line of dialogue nor visual metaphor. And yet, though I missed nothing of the film, for that split second of not looking at the screen… I missed looking at the screen. I was so absorbed by the action, by the visuals, by the enveloping soundtrack, that if I took myself out of it, even for a moment, I missed not being inside the atmosphere of the film. It was a comfortable bed that I was loathed to tear myself away from. Such is the strength that still remains in Apocalypse Now.
One of the truly great things about Apocalypse Now, and the 2001 re-edit Redux, is that I still can’t entirely decide if it’s one of the worst directed films ever or one of the best directed films ever. It’s ambitious, pretentious, flawed, vital, indulgent, incendiary filmmaking at its most extreme. Coppola himself says that, as the film progresses, the story itself becomes less important. He always said that it’s more of an experience than a film. There is the distinct impression that the film, at some point, ceases to be under the direction of Coppola and instead begins to direct itself, like a living entity trying explore itself in the same the way the characters in the film do. Off the top of my head, I can think of only one other film that has managed to achieve this sense that the film has come alive on its own and begun to dictate its own trajectory, beyond the control (and sometimes the understanding) of its original controller. That film is one I’ll eventually get to in this journey through my collection, but for now, I’ll keep my focus on Apocalypse Now Redux.
Most of what I already think about the original film remains intact in the light of the new material on show in Redux, despite some pretty sizable shifts in structure and flow. I’ll begin by talking about the original film, and then move onto other considerations developed by the new edit.
The original intentions of Apocalypse Now can generally be summed up with the same words that so many others, particularly film students, have used to describe their own projects – “I want to take a proper, realistic look at this, without the bullshit. I don’t want the audience to watch it, I want them to feel it.” The Vietnam War is often described by those that were there as a truly grim and hazy experience, like a bad trip in a hostile place that never seemed to end. If this is the case, then Apocalypse Now truly is the closest thing to being there. Loosely basing itself on Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness, the film surges forward into a journey through corruption, amoral reasoning, madness and the dark soul that rests at the heart of every human being. Willard is sent to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Col. Kurtz, a brilliant soldier on his way to becoming one of the top brass in the country, because he has gone off the rails, has closed himself off from the outside world and begun to amass his own army of natives deep within Cambodia. To these less civilised people, he has become a deity, a god, an idol to whom they have given themselves over to completely. With this unwavering support, Kurtz begins fighting the war on his own terms, picking his own targets and ordering his new troops to kill them. That he seems to be getting some sort of results in his area is not the concern to the US military. To them, he has gone completely insane. Therefore, they formally charge him with murder (a notion both Kurtz and Willard find, in the context of where they are, insane) and assign Willard to kill him. On the journey, Willard reads over the numerous documents of Kurtz’s accomplishments, his multiple decorations, his many achievements, and comes to question the authority that would create such a brilliant and highly decorated soldier only to deem him mad for carrying out the duties of his command, but without their input and a ruthless efficiency that they find collectively disturbing. By the time Willard meets his intended target, his journey and his own dwindling mental state mean that he is more like Kurtz than himself.
That Kurtz is regularly alluded to as some sort of deity, and Willard’s journey towards him makes the Apocalypse Now something akin to a religious pilgrimage. People go on these types of journeys to feel closer to God, at least metaphorically. Willard’s journey is made more intense and intriguing because, not only does he know that he will have met God by the end of the trek, but it’s his job to kill him. Along the way, the more he reads of Kurtz’s exploits, both within the military and without, as well as letters from Kurtz to his family, the more Willard becomes indoctrinated into Kurtz’s way of thinking. He starts to buy into the cult of Kurtz. He begins to believe in him. The sense of the religious is scattered throughout the film at numerous instances, utilising religious iconography and imagery, both Western and Eastern, at various points to support this ideal. The whole voyage itself, often described as a descent into madness and Hell, is somewhat structured after a journey (albeit a meandering one) through the various levels of Hell suggested in Dante’s Inferno, with Willard acting as out Virgil. Willard begins in his Saigon hotel room, endlessly waiting on his next assignment – The First Circle of Limbo. As his boat sails down the river, he makes stops at regular intervals. There’s the famous helicopter blitz attack on a small village (Seventh Circle - Violence); there’s the USO show featuring three Playboy Bunnies (Second Circle - Lust); there’s stopping for mangoes, with Chef discussing food, before being chased away by a tiger (Third Circle – Gluttony, with the tiger acting as Cerberus). There’s even a possible allusion to the eternal torment of Greek character Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend eternity pushing a boulder to the top of a hill only to watch it roll back down and have to repeat the task forever. This point can be found in the scene where Willard’s boat happens upon a US Army outpost at a bridge with no commanding officer, which is under constant attack from Vietnamese troops. The US keeps trying to build the bridge; the enemy keeps destroying it. Kurtz’s appearance of a fat bald man (though much to the intense displeasure of director Coppola) actually extends this Eastern deity idea, making him look like some darkly perverted image of Buddha. And the final 15 minutes are a work of brutal ritual, figurative and literal.
The main sequences remain as big and powerful as always. The opening scene with Willard is still a supremely evocative sequence, stirring up the beginnings of the dark hysteria and tragedy that the rest of the film will build on. From the moment Lt. Col. Kilgore, played with a vigorous bravado by Robert Duvall, shows up, the whole film seems to run on a more intense heat, almost like the character makes the film itself stand more at attention. The helicopter attack on the village and school are masterworks of editing, of music, of frankly epic sound design. The Sisyphean bridge scene is something of a deliberate eeriness and shell-shocked horror, scattered with examples of aimless aggression and paranoia. Particularly disquieting is the unblinking soldier who blows up the remains of a Vietnamese squad hiding in the jungle, judging the aim and distance by ear, with an almost supernatural calm.
Kurtz’s compound of death is also still deeply unnerving, decorated with heads, skulls, corpses and words scrawled onto a wall – “OUR MOTTO: APOCALYPSE NOW”. Dennis Hopper’s jittery and intense photojournalist is a rather unsettling presence, but mainly because he’s such enthusiastic believer in Kurtz and his doctrine. He’s a fanatic. He really believes the man is a genius, a god, because when he says things, he has the strength and will to carry them out. As he tells Willard:
Photojournalist: I wish I had words, man. I wish I had words... I can tell ya
something like the other day he wanted to kill me. Somethin’ like that...
Willard: Why’d he wanna kill you?
Photojournalist: Because I took his picture. He said “If you take my picture
again, I'm gonna kill you.” And he meant it.
That he delivers that last line with more than a little awe, as if he’s honoured he should be so regarded by Kurtz, is unsettling.
Many people find the scenes with Brando to be the point where the film wanders too far, goes off the rails too much. Honestly, I disagree. I think it left the rails long before. Now the journey has come to an end and therefore Willard must finally come to make his choice… kill the man, or join him. Brando, for all of his weird dialogue (most of which he made up) and his grotesque appearance, is still a forceful and imposing presence in the film. There’s no doubting that this rambling maniac is capable of doing these terrible things, but there’s equally no doubting that he could inspire the following to do it. Brando has always been possessed of great charisma, indeed that’s why he became the idol to so many in real life. And that’s just exactly what cult leaders need – presence, charisma, the ability to command an audience’s attention. And the way he delivers the monologue about the enemy soldiers that inspired Kurtz to become what he is is still remarkably chilling, made more so because it’s somewhat understandable. That’s what makes Kurtz really horrifying, that he arrived at his mania with a logical clarity that’s difficult to deny.
The new changes made to the film in the Redux cut are mostly small ones, but feature two pretty large additions to the story. One is a return of the Playboy Bunnies from the USO show who had to leave quickly in their helicopter after the audience got too rowdy and started to storm the stage. Willard’s boat comes across a mostly abandoned medevac site that the Bunnies’ helicopter landed. Here, Willard trades two barrels of fuel so the other men on the boat can have one hour with two of them. The girls are now as druggy as most of the soldiers in the film (one absently talking about birds; the other how she feels more like a plaything than a person), so they seem completely unaware that they are being undressed and positioned. It’s a rather unsettling addition, furthering the impression that anyone lost in this morass will become instantly corrupted, be they soldier or civilian.
The other main addition is the French plantation scene, where Willard and his fellow travellers happen upon a plantation run by a French family and protected by French soldiers. This is a far more surreal sequence. Welcomed by the owners, the American soldiers are brought in and cleaned up, fed a proper meal in a very expensive and well-kept house. The family discuss politics and history, with things becoming more heated amongst themselves when Willard asks when they plan on returning to France, given the war that rages around them. They say that they shall never leave, because this is their home, this is their land. For the whole scene, we remain as well informed on the discussion as Willard, which is to say, not very. We get no subtitles to tell us what they say amongst each other, with only some of the conversation being in English and directed at Willard. When people begin seriously disagreeing, leaving the table, sometimes in tears, it’s rather awkward, for us and for Willard. Willard is eventually left at the table with a young woman, who never said a word during dinner. The two eventually go off, smoke some opium, and she tells him, “There are two of you, can’t you see? One that kills, and one that loves,” thus echoing this continued sense of moral duality in the piece. As it is, this particular sequence is one I’m inclined to say isn’t real, that it exists in a peculiar fantasy world, one into which Willard retreats for a sense of perspective. It’s not even just because the scene is bookended by a thick white mist, but because this whole sequence has such a different feel about it. It feels antiquated, outside of the rest of the film. Even the music suggests a period some forty years prior.
Overall, Apocalypse Now is still a film of immense power, liable to leave most people a bit punch-drunk after seeing it, though in the best possible way. The Redux version is one of the few films that has been served better from its reconstitution of old scenes. It’s still the dark, chaotic, living film as before, but now with extra moments of surreal vision, of bleak pontificating, of genuine emotional power. The original cut is still not an inferior one by comparison; it just serves to have its points made a bit better in the newer cut.